5 tactical considerations for throwable robot deployment

These systems allow tactical teams to collect vital intelligence through onboard video and audio systems


Few forces are impacting law enforcement like video. Policing in the Video Age, P1's yearlong special editorial focus on video in law enforcement, aims to address all facets of the topic with expanded analysis and reporting.

In the first installment of this four-part signature coverage effort, The Video Technologies Shaping Policing, we address how technologies including police drones, throwable robots, body-worn cameras, dash cams, and videos shot by the public are impacting law enforcement. Click here to learn more about the project.

Leveraging technology to enhance public and officer safety is essential, and in just a handful of years, law enforcement agencies have come to depend on a variety of robot platforms to help them accomplish that goal. Perhaps one of the most helpful of these systems is the throwable robot – a lightweight, ruggedized platform that can literally be thrown into position, then remotely controlled from a position of safety.

An industry leader in this technology, Recon Robotics constantly receives positive feedback from tactical teams who have used their "throwbots"(a registered trademark) to great effect in the field. These systems allow tactical teams to collect vital intelligence through onboard video and audio systems that have increased safety and effectiveness when the teams are deployed, saving the lives of innocents, officers and even suspects.

Sgt. Maj. Steven Robertson demonstrates the Recon Scout XT, affectionately known as the "throw-bot" at the Joint Robotics Program Executive‚ Ground Combat Systems booth in the Army Strong Zone at the Alamodome Jan. 2, 2014. (Photo/U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class Lisa M. Litchfield, 319th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, U.S. Army All-American Bowl JIB)
Sgt. Maj. Steven Robertson demonstrates the Recon Scout XT, affectionately known as the "throw-bot" at the Joint Robotics Program Executive‚ Ground Combat Systems booth in the Army Strong Zone at the Alamodome Jan. 2, 2014. (Photo/U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class Lisa M. Litchfield, 319th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, U.S. Army All-American Bowl JIB)

In the words of one of these tactical teams, the most significant advantage of the throwable robot is that it "allows them to own the real estate with their eyes, before they pay for it with their bodies."

The throwable robot is a powerful tool, but as with any technology, there are limitations and issues which must be considered before it is employed. Some of these include performance limitations, battery life, incomplete information, suspect response and priority of life.

1. Performance limitations

Throwable robots are incredibly tough machines that are made to withstand environmental rigors, but they have their limitations. The machines are water resistant and can withstand short term immersions; however, they may not be capable of sustained operation in flooded environments. The machines can climb over some obstacles, such as doors or large, heavy items, but some surfaces or grades may be too much for them to handle and block their progress. Although the machines are designed to operate at a distance, building materials and construction may limit the effective range of signals, so teams should experiment with different structures and environments in advance to determine representative ranges. A smart operator will understand the limitations of the technology, have realistic expectations, and remain flexible enough to adapt when difficulties are encountered.

2. Battery life

Throwable robots have an excellent run time, but tactical situations like barricades and hostage negotiations can really run out the clock and push beyond the on-station time of these miniaturized systems. Tactical teams will need to develop plans for rotating throwable robots out so that batteries can be charged, and they may need to have multiple systems available to provide continuous coverage.

3. Incomplete information

Throwable robots can safely go places where we wouldn't send an officer and can provide tremendous intelligence. The audio and visual feeds can provide vital information and help to fill in many of the gaps in our understanding of a threatening situation. Yet, as wonderful an asset as they are, they cannot provide a complete picture. The camera eye can only see so much, and there are many critical elements of information that may go undiscovered or unrecognized. Weapons and people can be hidden from view, dangers can go unnoticed, smells (like gasoline or natural gas) are undetectable, and the microphone may fail to pick up vital communications. Throwable robots provide such an advance in situational awareness that it can be easy to forget that our understanding of the situation is still incomplete. Tactical commanders should always keep this consideration in mind as they develop and execute their plans.

4. Suspect response

Throwable robots are designed to operate quietly, which enhances their ability to get close to the target while avoiding detection. However, there is still a significant chance that the robot will be detected by the suspect or that the suspect may be alerted to it by others, including hostages. Unfortunately, law enforcement cannot predict how an alerted suspect will react to the presence of the system, so contingency plans must be in place before it is deployed. An agitated suspect may try to shoot at the robot (which provides valuable intelligence itself, such as confirmation of armed status, location identification and an indicator of willingness to surrender) and place nearby hostages or officers in danger.

This may also be a sign that the suspect may initiate direct violence against hostages or officers.

In the wake of the widely publicized, 2016 deployment of robot-borne explosives by the Dallas Police Department to eliminate an active shooter, a suspect may fear that the robot is an IED and be provoked into violence. When this system is thrown into a room, it may be mistaken for a less-than-lethal munition or a diversionary device by the suspect, convincing him that an assault may be imminent. Therefore, it bears repeating that tactical commanders should have contingency plans in place and be ready to execute them, in the event that the system’s presence changes or destabilizes the situation.

5. Priority of life

The Priority of Life model places innocents before law enforcement and law enforcement before suspects. Tactical commanders should be vigilant to ensure that throwable robot deployments are conducted in accordance with this model.

For example, officers should not be encouraged to take unnecessary risks in order to deploy a throwable robot (such as approaching the target without suitable cover and protection). Similarly, commanders should not risk the lives of their personnel to recover a damaged, trapped or stranded system, as we have regrettably seen in some tactical operations. If the deployment of a throwable robot destabilizes a volatile situation and creates the threat of violence against innocents, then it should be delayed or appropriate safeguards should be emplaced before it is used.

Throwable robots offer significant advantages and have proven to be an essential part of a tactical team's equipment in a very short time. They enhance situational awareness, safety and mission success, but should always be employed by teams who understand their limitations and who appreciate the various tactical considerations associated with using this exciting technology.

Be safe out there.

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